It may be a catchy slogan, but there’s no such thing as socialism for the rich

The Bernie campaign used the “socialism for the rich” talking point. And now that campaign is suspended, we should suspend the use of that rhetoric.

Christian Patterson
2020-04-14
Underground Mall

Now that the Bernie 2020 campaign has ended, I want to focus on how the US left-wing movement should move forward. One of the things I want to focus on, as someone with little resources and no power, is how we understand and frame socialism. Right now, socialism is used as a rhetorical club. By socialism’s enemies, it’s used as a smear to dismiss someone with. As a disenfranchised leftist, socialism is used as a “screw you” to the American political apparatus in general.

The American socialist movement is now de-tethered from presidential electoral politics. And this gives the left an opportunity to sharpen our rhetoric, be more specific with meaning, and broaden our understanding of socialism.

One of the main phrases I personally have issue with is: “socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor” or some variation of that.

It’s an alright slogan. I get its point: the government should help us the same way they help bail out corporations. In that way, it’s convincing and concise. But it’s not a very good argument because it misrepresents what socialism and capitalism are.

In this post, I will give an explanation of why socialism and capitalism are not compatible in this way, and taking care of corporate interests is capitalism, not socialism. I will explain why we should avoid this slogan on the future, because we should find more precise ways to represent our ideology.

In all societies, there’s a dominant mode of production. I live in the United States, and it’s certainly a capitalist country, because capitalism is the dominant mode of production. However, even the US, being the capitalist state par excellence, contains within it other economic modes of production. There are private communes, where people live collectively. There are also people living in pseudo-feudal working/living situations. For example, when I was growing up, my family would go to rural resort for family reunions. The people working there were seasonal employees, and they would get paid in room and board, food, and a small stipend.

Of course, seasonal, rural employees still work for a capitalist enterprise, and still get compensated with a monetary wage. They are not feudal peasants. But the nature of their job retains some elements of a feudal workforce. A much stronger example is, although the global economy is, more or less, entirely capitalized, there are many agrarian workers in the global south who generate value for capitalist enterprises, but are compensated more with food and housing than money, making them retain elements of feudal economies.

However, more common than a capitalist economy retaining some elements of feudalism, is when a capitalist economy contains socialized programs and industries. There’s Social Security, food stamps, unemployment insurance, disability programs etc. All of these are representative of a socialized economy, but that certainly doesn’t make socialism the primary mode of production.

The point is, it’s not useful to conceptualize the economy as a “mixture of capitalism and socialism”. People use this premise when they advocate for capitalism with a robust social program supplementing it. But historically, this isn’t an effective or accurate way of understanding the economy.

For example, look at the Roman Empire.

The primary mode of production in Rome was slavery. Most of the working class were slaves. However, there was a small portion of the workforce who were urban workers, who worked for a wage (ie, like the proletariat class under capitalism). There were also social programs in Rome.

Despite those things, the Roman Empire was still a slave society. The Roman Empire wasn’t “somewhere between” slavery and socialism. Their social programs were necessary to retain slavery, and consequently a part of slavery.

The point is, every economy has a character. It is for one class of people primarily. The class character of every state economy corresponds with the primary mode of production.

Every government, from the the beginning of society until now, have some form of social programs, but that doesn’t make them socialist, or even partially socialist.

“Socialism for the rich” is when the government does bail outs and use government resources to protect and enable capitalist enterprise. But if they’re protecting capitalist interests, isn’t it antithetical to socialism?

The reason the “socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor” talking point is convincing, and is rhetorically powerful, is because it’s basically saying “your government helps the capitalists but it doesn’t help us”. That is totally true, and it’s useful for the socialist project that socialism is viewed as something that will help us. But it’s not technically true, because socialism and capitalism are two different modes of production. They can coexist, but there will always be a primary mode of production that dominates the political and economic apparatus.

Capitalism can take many forms. Any system that incentivizes the ownership of private property and profit accumulation is capitalist. There’s no “outside” of capitalism in a system that allows these things. You could go live in a commune, but you still live in a society where capitalism is the primary mode of production. Socialism is a system that incentivizes collective ownership and social progression. Capitalist economies can incentivize some collective ownership, but remains capitalist if capitalism is the primary mode of production.

We need to conceptualize socialism as something bigger and more fundamental than simply social programs. Socialism is a mode of production, and a socialist society is one where the socialist mode of production is the primary one. Socialism is not something you negotiate for with a capitalist government. The capitalist class would never allow that.

Socialism is a different mode from capitalism. When the government takes the side of the capitalist class, helps the capitalist class, and forms their whole government apparatuses around the capitalist class, they’re doing capitalism, they’re not doing socialism.

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